Two decades after 9/11, America’s Sikhs on guard over attacks

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Two decades after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by Islamic terrorists, a religious group not at all connected to Islam remains on guard for violence against its members.

A Sikh living in Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, is believed to be the first American killed as a reprisal for the 9/11 attacks. He was shot outside the gas station/convenience store he owned on the evening of Sept. 15, 2001, just hours after giving all the money in his pocket — about $70 — to people collecting for victims of the attacks.

Mr. Sodhi, age 52 at the time of his murder, fled anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab region of India and came to the United States, working his way to owning his own small business.

The assailant, disgruntled Boeing aircraft mechanic Frank Roque, had told friends he wanted to “go out and shoot some towel-heads” before the murder. Now 62, Roque is serving a life sentence for the crime. Rana Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s younger brother, told The Washington Times Roque has apologized.

“He understands now,” Mr. Sodhi said in a telephone interview. “He apologized to me and he apologized to my family and my community.”

Mr. Sodhi collaborated with the Sikh Coalition and the Global Sikh Alliance to stage a 20th-anniversary memorial observance at the gas station, which the family still owns and which Balbir’s son operates, on the evening of Sept. 15.

“I think I lost so much these last 20 years,” Mr. Sodhi said of his older brother. “He [was] the person who brought my family together. One night before [the murder] he called me to have dinner with him. Almost every week, we brothers got together and had dinner; he was the key to bringing us together.”

Estimates put the number of Sikhs worldwide at between 25 million and 30 million people. The religion originated in the Punjab region of India and has no connection to Islam, instead being based on the teachings of founder Guru Nanak and nine successors, ending with Guru Gobind Singh, who died early in the 18th century. Sikhs try to avoid what they view as the illusion of worldly attractions and seek to serve others, including giving to the needy.

But because male Sikhs wear a turban and a beard as symbols of religious adherence, they are often mistaken for some Muslims who also wear turbans and have beards, such as the Taliban and followers of al Queda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Such confusions, Sikh author Simran Jeet Singh said in an interview, are “part of the strange experience post-9/11. Of not being Muslim, but being seen as Muslim and having to figure out how to deal with that.”

Mr. Singh, an academic who teaches Buddhist history at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is a senior fellow at the Sikh Coalition, a group that tries to educate Americans about Sikhism and also advocates for Sikhs in the U.S. 

He said the group was organized in 2001 after the attacks and was “focused on responding to emergency situations” at the time, and has since broadened to “become more proactive in teaching Americans about who we are.”

Although misunderstandings about Sikhs, a community that has been in the U.S. for more than a century, existed before 9/11, Mr. Singh says the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan creates an unwanted and undeserved linkage.

“What’s particularly important for us as a community in this moment is we’re seeing the images come out of Afghanistan, with the collapse of their government, and the rise of the Taliban,” Mr. Singh said.

“I’m getting in many ways hitting flashbacks to 20 years ago where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and the Taliban’s images first came onto my radar,” he said. “And to many of my friends as well. And so we’re seeing these images of extremists who look very much like people in our community, and we’re aware that people will make a one-to-one association as they have done in the past.”

Mr. Singh said that while it was “understandable” that some well-meaning people would suggest Sikhs abandon the turban and beard to assimilate into American culture, such moves wouldn’t work “because there’s no way that we can ever be completely homogeneous and one-dimensional.”

Instead, he suggested, “if someone truly understood what my turban means to me, there wouldn’t be any conversation” about that notion.

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